By Peter Boot
For the study of literature, we live in exciting times. This has two reasons: we can computationally analyse the full text of books and we now have access to large amounts of data about how books affect readers. With respect to the computational analysis of book texts, this allows us to reformulate the hunches and guesses that researchers have had about texts, fictional characters and style as testable hypotheses. While earlier researchers had to focus on single works and representative passages, the computer can now process the many texts that are available. With respect to the data about readers: while it has always been possible to study books, to interpret their texts and to relate them to earlier texts and to the societies that produced them, it has always been very hard to study how literature affects readers, because reading (unlike writing and printing) leaves no visible traces. Now we have ways to study reader response in a laboratory setting, with questionnaires, eye tracking and brain scanners, as well as with large numbers of online book reviews that show us what readers make of books.
The Impact and Fiction project aims to bring these two strands of research together. In earlier projects, some of us already worked on some aspects of this. For example, in the project The Riddle of Literary Quality, Karina van Dalen-Oskam analysed ca. 400 books, based on the opinions about their general quality and specifically literary quality. Joris van Zundert and Marijn Koolen tried to predict book sales on the basis of an algorithmic analysis of the books’ texts. Marijn Koolen and Peter Boot analysed book reviews in term of four aspects of response and were able to connect that to book genre. Olivia da Costa Fialho analysed reader response looking for transformative reading experiences.
In the Impact and Fiction project, we now intend to do an ‘end-to-end’ analysis: we will analyse the books’ texts and try to predict the readers’ response, taking into account characteristics of the reader. What makes this extra ambitious is that we want to do these predictions in terms of textual properties that make sense to readers and literary scholars. More about how we intend to tackle this task is available in the project description and the grant application. In this blog we will keep you up to date about our progress. Please wish us luck on our difficult journey!